Last month, SES and Boeing held a VIP “sneak peek” and unveiling of their soon-to-be-completed O3b mPOWER satellites. When payload integration and testing is completed, these satellites will be launched into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) as part of the next generation of the SES O3b MEO satellite service.
Since the procurement of the O3b mPOWER constellation was first announced in 2017, SES has touted it as a revolutionary advancement in connectivity and communications from space. But what makes the system – and the spacecraft that powers it – different from other high throughput satellite (HTS) constellations? What technological advancements does it offer from its O3b successor? And what services or capabilities will military and government users gain access to when this new service launches?
To get the answers to these questions, we sat down with Ryan Reid, the President of Boeing Commercial Satellite Systems, International.
Government Satellite Report (GSR): Last month, Boeing invited press and space experts to sneak a peek at the new O3b mPOWER satellites. At a high level, what makes these satellites so different from traditional HTS satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO)?
Ryan Reid: There are technological differences between the mPOWER satellites and a traditional HTS satellite. The O3b mPOWER satellites are based on our 702X platform. The core difference between traditional HTS satellites – such as those built with our 702 platform – and the 702X platform is full software-defined flexibility.
With traditional high throughput satellites (HTS) there is a digital payload that allows you to flexibly allocate the satellite’s resources. However, there are limits to how much flexibility the user has. With the 702X platform being used on O3b mPOWER, it is much more flexible and manageable, even while it’s in orbit.
For example, with SES’s O3b mPOWER satellites, users can control satellite resources while on orbit completely through software. The beams can be allocated to one location or can be spread out and shaped however the user wants purely by software control.
And that gives users a new level of flexibility, scale, and control that is generally unmatched by the traditional HTS architecture.
GSR: How are they different from the existing SES O3b satellite constellation in MEO? What advancements do these satellites offer that those did not?
Ryan Reid: When we had our media event last month, the CEO of SES, Steve Collar, referred to the introduction of these satellites as going from an iPhone One to an iPhone 12. I personally think the example should be going from a push-button telephone to an iPhone 12 or the newly introduced iPhone 13. It introduces a new level of functionality, capacity, and flexibility that is fundamentally different.
If we look at the current O3b satellites, they are very traditional satellites. The constellation includes 20 satellites, each with 10 individually steerable spot beams that connect to steerable gateway beams. SES, as the network service provider, has constraints on how they provide that connectivity to their users because of this architecture. It’s similar to what exists in traditional GEO HTS. There are users and you have gateways, and you have to connect them, which limits service providers to a certain number of set network topographies.
Looking at the O3b mPOWER satellites, the entire construct of the user and the gateway is eliminated. Instead of ten beams to connect with users and two beams for gateways, you have 5,000 beams that you can do anything with. So, there is no longer a concept of a “user” and a “gateway.”
As we began this journey with SES, we started with a more traditional network structure with users and gateways. But then, it became apparent that what they really needed was a network switch in the sky. And that caused Boeing and SES to do a hard pivot, bring in new technologies that we were developing for some time, and create something that is truly software-defined and flexible, and that functions as a layer two network switch in orbit. This gives users complete flexibility into how the network is designed and implemented, and even allows you to change it over the life of the system.
“Instead of ten beams to connect with users and two beams for gateways, you have 5,000 beams that you can do anything with. So, there is no longer a concept of a user and a gateway.” – Ryan Reid
From a hardware perspective, it’s almost like the evolution from a console television – for those of your readers older enough to remember those – to a flat panel television. You have the same functionality as the console television, but you have so much more flexibility and capability in a much smaller package.
The 702X architecture is analogous to going from that console television to the flat panel. It mimics that evolution.
GSR: What types of advanced services, capabilities, and applications could mPOWER enable for the military and government? What use cases do these organizations have for high throughput, low latency connectivity at the tactical edge?
Ryan Reid: Having the satellite constellation at MEO significantly reduces the latency. And that lower latency provides a network and connectivity that operates much like a terrestrial network. So, operating at MEO is a key enabler of many technologies and applications that require high throughputs and low latencies, even at the tactical edge.
The O3b mPOWER satellites have access to the complete 2.5 GHZ of commercial Ka-band spectrum. So, to a military or government user, these satellites can be used to deliver resilient backhaul for a localized network that is accessible to deployed forces or tactical operators. This gives them incredible flexibility to enable connectivity and access to advanced capabilities for mobile users that may not have access to terrestrial networks. It’s also flexible, so it can deliver agility on the fly for tactical requirements. They can allow users to quickly meet shifting connectivity requirements for missions, even if those missions didn’t have well-forecasted locations.
What can military and government users do with that connectivity? They certainly can use it for ISR platforms and missions.
“O3b mPOWER could enable a localized network that could enable that data to be exfiltrated in real-time and pushed to forward operating forces to ensure they have the most up-to-date data.” – Ryan Reid
One of the notable features of the O3b mPOWER design is that it has symmetric forward and return links. That gives it a great ability to backhaul data off of ISR platforms, even if those ISR platforms are highly mobile because it gives the user the ability to create coverage over a large geographic area on the fly, utilizing software.
This is something similar to what we see with the cruise ship market. Think of cruise ships as very large, easy-target ISR platforms. When cruise passengers get back on the ship from their excursions, they want to upload photos, share videos, and communicate with friends and loved ones. That creates a large return link demand which is not typically seen in networks, which are usually very forward-link driven – getting information out to people. The symmetry of the forward and return link that’s inherent in O3b mPOWER can be exploited to empower a bubble of data exfiltration.
The military may not be looking to upload tourism photos, but they would be looking to transmit large intelligence files – including HD videos and images. O3b mPOWER could enable a localized network that could enable that data to be exfiltrated in real-time and pushed to forward operating forces to ensure they have the most up-to-date data.
Another example would be morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) services. Currently, with limited bandwidth available to them, the military has to make difficult, strategic decisions about what travels across their satellite networks. MWR data and capabilities that could enable a higher quality of life for the warfighter – such as entertainment and communications services – often need to be sacrificed for more mission-critical systems.
The scale of communication that O3b mPOWER enables opens the door for new use cases that the military may never have considered delivering at the tactical edge in their traditional, connectivity-constrained environment. O3b mPOWER is enabling ubiquitous broadband connectivity in theater, and the use cases for that are almost limitless.
For additional information about how Ob3 mPOWER can enable next-generation technologies on the battlefield, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “High Throughput Satellites for U.S. Government Applications.”